Love is not a luxury, it is a vital nutrient of life. Without love, life is like a hard, stale loaf of bread. Tasteless and hard to swallow.
Love is medicine, a magical antidote to fear and anger, and the way to heal yourself and the world. If you want to change the world for the better, the best place to start is by loving yourself.
“Whoever loves himself, will never harm another.” – Buddha
All the love you need already exists within you. As Rumi suggests, our task is to unblock the spring of love that already exists within. The practice of loving kindness provides a gentle, proven, and systematic framework for doing just this.
In the first article of this two-part series, we explored how elusive self-love may sometimes seem. So much so that we might not even be aware of its lack in our life. Yet it makes itself known through an array of unhappy and unhealthy behaviors.
But we’re not stuck. Through the practice of loving kindness, we can unlock the love inside and transform our uneasiness into kindness, contentment, and peace.
Today we’ll explore the ins and outs of loving kindness practice.
Loving Kindness: The Phrases
The practice of loving kindness involves the repetition of a few simple phrases. The specific phrases vary depending upon the teacher and the tradition. These are the ones I use in my practice.
- May I be well.
- May I be happy.
- May I be safe. (May be added if you wish.)
I appreciate these particular phrases especially because they are so simple and easy to remember. There is a power in their simplicity. Additional phrases are used by other teachers and these can also be beneficial.
I personally recommend staying with the traditional phrases rather than attempting to create your own. Sometimes, our urge to do our own thing is ego’s way of pulling us away from the pure power of the practice. If the phrases make you feel uncomfortable, that’s probably a very good sign. You are probably hitting pay dirt. But ultimately, the choice is yours.
The practice is done in “formal” sessions. This means establishing a regular place to practice where you are relatively separate from the normal distractions of life – at least for a short time. It doesn’t have to be perfect or absolutely quiet. Just find the best spot you can. You can sit on your bed, in your favorite chair, in nature, or on a meditation cushion on the floor. The “formal” part doesn’t have to be overly formal. The main point is to establish a relatively private spot.
Then set aside time to practice regularly, whether it’s 5 minutes or 20 minutes or more. You can start with just 5 minutes if that’s all the time you have. Then gradually expand from there. Be realistic so you can be successful. It’s better to build up your time gradually instead of giving up because you tried to do too much too soon.
Practicing daily is best if you can manage it, but you don’t need to be too rigid about it. If it’s not possible to practice daily, aim to practice at least 4-5 times a week. It’s better to do shorter sessions more often than a long session once in awhile.
Loving kindness practice is very popular in the West. So it’s also possible to attend a weekend or week-long retreat to kick-start your practice or even participate in an online course.
As an adjunct to formal practice, the phrases are also repeated silently in daily life. Whenever you have a spare moment or find yourself up against a tough situation, turn to the phrases.
The Process of Loving Kindness Practice
The process is simple. When you begin the session, get comfortable and take a few moments to let you mind settle. Simply breath in and out and allow your thoughts to settle down. Then begin the repetition of the phrases, one after the other. Slowly repeat them aloud allowing them to gradually sink into you.
- May I be well.
- May I be happy.
- May I be safe. (If you wish, you can include this phrase.)
Then repeat them again in the same sequence.
As you repeat the phrases, you also reflect on their meaning. You can recall times when you felt happy and re-experience those moments. You can imagine what it would be like to experience well-being and to be free from your own turbulent or distressing emotions. You can envision what it would be like to be free from fear and danger.
You also consider that you are worthy of love regardless of any negative tendencies you may have. We all have negative aspects to purify and transform, yet we still deserve love. Every single person is deserving of love. You can also remember your moments of goodness; when you acted out of kindness or expressed love towards others. Recall your positive qualities too.
The point is to recognize that you too are worthy of love and to allow that truth to sink into your being. At the same time, we’re not trying to fabricate the experience of self-love, but gradually unblocking the love that naturally resides within.
Chances are your mind will get distracted from time to time. You might start thinking about work, what you need from the store, or what you plan to do after practice. This happens for all of us. When it does just bring yourself back to the repetition of the phrases without chastising yourself.
At the end of the practice, drop the phrases and rest for a few moments in whatever feelings of love, happiness, or well being you feel. Then remember to apply the phrases now and then as you go about your daily life.
What Will Happen?
Almost any emotion, mental state, or physical discomfort can arise during the practice. You might feel bored, impatient, irritated, or self-critical. You might feel like you are wasting your time. Feelings of pain, sadness, or anger might arise. Whatever arises is like a snapshot of your inner landscape and and often a vivid picture of your own barriers to love and happiness in life.
So be aware of how you feel during the practice. This is part of the practice too. When a feeling or difficult mental state arises, bring your full attention to it. Then direct the phrases toward it by focusing on it and saying, “May you be well, may you be happy.” When the feeling or difficult mental states dissolves, simply return to repeating the phrases in the usual way.
Challenges will arise during the practice of loving kindness. They are the fuel for removing layers of conditioning and opening more fully. The aim is to simply be present to whatever arises. Although facing our emotions and stuck patterns may be painful, we can and will move through them with the help of the practice. Eventually, the strength of these difficult thoughts and emotions will subside and a new, more loving you will emerge.
Trust the Practice
Some people have strong experiences and profound openings during this practice. Others have a more subtle experience. For example, it might seem like nothing is happening at all, but suddenly – when you least expect it – you notice a shift in how you relate to yourself when a difficult moment arises in life. There can also be periods when the practice feels “on” and other periods like it’s “off.”
The key is to simply to continue.
Even if you don’t experience a strong feeling of warmth or self-love, trust that the practice is working and patiently continue. The common experience is that eventually a deeper more pervasive feeling of loving kindness will arise. There are many layers of conditioning to move through and we all progress at a different speed. So trust and patience are an essential part of the practice.
The Benefits of Loving Kindness Practice
In her book Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, the contemporary spiritual teacher Sharon Salzberg shares these benefits from regularly engaging in loving kindness practice,
“Fortunately, the Buddha was characteristically precise about what those benefits include. He said that the intimacy and caring that fill our hearts as the force of lovingkindness develops will bring eleven particular advantages:
1) You will sleep easily. 2) You will wake easily. 3) You will have pleasant dreams. 4) People will love you. 5) Devas [celestial beings] and animals will love you. 6) Devas will protect you. 7) External dangers [poisons, weapons, and fire] will not harm you. 8) Your face will be radiant. 9) Your mind will be serene. 10) You will die unconfused. 11) You will be reborn in happy realms.”
Stages of the Practice
Using these evocative phrases is a simple and powerful way to nurture positive and loving feelings for our self.
This the first stage in loving kindness practice. Once we’ve sparked our inner love, we gradually extend our circle of love until it ultimately includes all beings. However, we train gradually in stages and the training always begins with loving kindness towards our self.
The stages may be described differently by different teachers, but they generally include:
- A Benefactor – someone who has shown us extraordinary love and kindness
- A Dear Friend
- A Neutral Person
- A Difficult Person or Enemy
- All Beings
You can progressively train in these stages over a period of six weeks, for example. It’s important to focus on the first stage – loving kindness for yourself – for a substantial amount of time. You can easily give it two weeks or longer. Then you progressively move through the subsequent stages allowing at least 4 -10 days for each one The easier stages – like loving kindness for a friend – may require less time, while you may need more time for the more challenging stages.
This practice is a simple and powerful way to nurture self love and, in so doing, boost your self-esteem, confidence, and sense of ease. Don’t let the simplicity of the phases and practice fool you. In part, it’s the simplicity and repetition that gradually erodes away your barriers to love. Instead of dispersing our energy into many different activities, we are concentrating the impact by using this relaxed, but laser-like focus.
There are many ways to nurture self-love. This is just one, but it is a practice I find both simple and profoundly effective. If you missed Part 1 of this series, here it is: Are You Serious About Loving Yourself, Part 1
This article is just a glimpse into the practice. The approach is based on teachings I’ve received from Sogyal Rinpoche. Although the practice is simple, there are many ways to deepen your understanding and enhance the practice. For example, the course I instruct is 10-weeks in length. If you would like to pursue the practice, you can really benefit from learning more about it. Here are some of the resources that I recommend.
This excerpt from Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is an excellent overview of the practice.
- Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg
- Boundless Heart by Alan Wallace
- The Places That Scare Us by Pema Chodron
I would love to hear any thoughts or tips you would like to share about cultivating loving-kindness in your life.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Part 1, Are You Serious About Loving Yourself.
Meditation image: Eddi van W.
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